By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Just a few years after World War I, and seven years before the start of the Great Depression, Marilu Dennis was born on June 28, 1922, in Lannius to Burrell L. Dennis and Margaret J. McElwee Dennis. Located slightly north of Bonham, Lannius was, and remains, a tightly knit cluster of homesteads.
Newlyweds who were 27 and 18 years old in 1900, the Dennises reported to the census taker that they had each been born in Texas. Burr and Maggie, as folks around Lannius knew them, were 50 and 40 years old, respectively, when their "change of life"--or "oops" baby--arrived. They were already parents to three sons: Leon, Clyde, and Robert. Edith, Marilu's only sister, was 15 or 16 years old.
Mary Lou recalls that the Dennis farm was "a beautiful place." Fruit trees shaded folks from the hot Texas sun. Her grandmother probably had a vegetable garden growing at the back door. "The house was so pretty; it was just like a picture book, with all the crops and everything," Mary Lou recalls. "I was fascinated by it."
Lannius' first Church of Christ was built in the 1880s. Burr Dennis, a Church of Christ minister, probably served for many years as its pastor, though the church doesn't exist today. His brother Albert and at least one other Dennis family member lived on nearby farms. But if the family was well known, they managed to keep their names out of the Bonham Public Library's historical records.
"If they were real prominent," Mary Lou says, "no one would ever have known it. They could have had a million dollars, and no one would have known it."
When asked why, she replies, "Well, I don't know. That's been kind of a mystery to a lot of us, because, you know, we're just who we are, and that's it. But they never wanted anybody to know anything about them. Grandpa was a wonderful guy, but he was kind of different."
Mary Lou was only three years younger than her aunt. Her father, Clyde, named her after Marilu because he thought his baby sister was such "a cute little girl." Some of Mary Lou's fondest childhood memories include her family's annual summer pilgrimages to Lannius. Her parents would spend the week catching up with the kinfolk, while the children played and romped on their grandparents' land.
"We went so often, it was a second home to me," Mary Lou says. "It was just a big hoot and holler. Of course, we didn't holler too loud, because they were all preachers. I remember the time when, if we younger people would laugh too loud, we'd get looks like, 'You're not supposed to do that.'"
Nevertheless, Mary Lou recalls that her aunt was a fun-loving young woman who enjoyed sharing a laugh and having a good time. Even then, she was somewhat nonchalant and "headstrong." She wore nice clothes, had a penchant for T-bone steaks, and enjoyed the company of friends. She attended business school and later worked from her home as a bookkeeper. She kept her private thoughts private.
In the early '40s, Marilu's elderly parents sold their farm in Lannius and moved to Bonham with her and her sister, Edith, to 800 W. 7th St.--a modest, white frame house, much smaller than what they'd been accustomed to. Mrs. J.M. Crocker, who ran a local grocery, lived about four houses down. She remembers that the family wasn't the type to stop and chit-chat.
"The only time we ever saw them was when they came to the store," she says. "In fact, we didn't even know what their names were. No one in that neighborhood knew anything about them."
Mary Lou recalls that the family had trouble adjusting to the new place. "But when Grandpa got sick, they sold the farm and came on in town."
Burr and Maggie Dennis deeded the Bonham property to Edith and Marilu soon after they arrived in '44. They also purchased four burial plots in Bonham's Willow Wild Cemetery for themselves and their two daughters. For several years after the elder Dennis passed away in '45, the three women lived together in the house on 7th.
Edith worked at the local J.C. Penney until she retired in the late '70s or early '80s. Bonham resident Anne Hamilton, Edith's longtime co-worker, thinks Marilu may have worked at the department store at one time as well. Hamilton doesn't remember much about Marilu other than a bit of gossip.
"She was a very, very to-herself person," she says. "She didn't associate with any people at all, hardly at all. Just Edith.
"[Marilu] wore mannish clothes," she adds. "She sort of dressed like a man. She wore a mannish haircut and that kind of thing. Back then, it was not as usual to see someone like that. And, of course, she stuck out like a sore thumb, you know, for someone to dress and act like that...I don't think she ever had anything to do with a man."
In 1960, something, or someone, prompted Marilu to leave Bonham and move to Dallas. No one seems to know why she left. Perhaps she finally felt ready for city life. She was 38 years old and still unmarried. Maybe she thought she could improve her chances of finding a husband.